The Year of Living Fearlessly: How the McCann Machine Roared Back in 2017

Get to know Adweek's U.S. Agency of the Year all over again

(L. to r.) Chris Macdonald, president, McCann Worldgroup North America; Eric Silver, chief creative officer, McCann North America; Devika Bulchandani, president, McCann New York Kevin Scanlon for Adweek
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She arrived in downtown Manhattan in the middle of the night on an unusually warm Monday in March. Her 250-pound, 50-inch bronze frame was small enough to escape the gaze of most oblivious passersby, but she quickly became larger than life. And nearly every recap of this historic, tempestuous year will inevitably include her image. 

Contradictions define Fearless Girl. She is a paid promotion demanding corporate responsibility. She is a child highlighting injustices of adulthood. She is an analog work in an increasingly digital world. And her creator, McCann, had a year that can be seen as a similar study in contrasts—one of the world’s oldest ad agencies proving its relevance once again. 

Relatively few of the millions of people who have seen, shared and responded to the statue over the past nine months know she was sponsored by investment firm State Street Global Advisors, or made by the agency responsible for once teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony.

But Fearless Girl undoubtedly succeeded on multiple fronts. A true pop-culture icon, she overcame various critiques and controversies—including a challenge from the artist behind Charging Bull and a $5 million fine for alleged wage discrimination at State Street Corp., parent company of State Street Global Advisors—to raise awareness of women in company boardrooms and challenge the public’s perception of what advertising can and should be.

That perfect storm of influence embodies McCann’s current status as both tastemaker and prototypical ad agency, and it helped guide Adweek’s decision to name the Interpublic Group network as U.S. Agency of the Year for 2017. A slew of shops have released impactful, even groundbreaking campaigns over the past 12 months, but McCann made international headlines with its work while countering the industry narrative that the glory days of established, holding company-owned agencies are long gone. 

(L. to r.) Sean Bryan, co-chief creative officer, McCann New York; Joyce King Thomas, chairman and chief creative officer, McCann XBC; Gary Pascoe, chief creative officer, Commonwealth//McCann; Veda Partalo, head of brand strategy, McCann New York; Kelly Johnson, president, 215 McCann, San Francisco; Tom Murphy, co-chief creative officer, McCann New York
Kevin Scanlon for Adweek

Welcome to the machine

“We are not a management consultancy, and we are not an accounting firm looking to get into the marketing world,” says Harris Diamond, chairman and CEO of McCann parent McCann Worldgroup, which he has run since 2012. “We are, at the end of the day, people who take great pride in the product we produce, which is a creative product that moves hearts and minds to either buy something or like something more than they would have otherwise.” 

Diamond disputes the idea that the 115-year-old McCann agency is a “legacy” shop, citing a variety of multiplatform work over the past year before adding, “McCann is a machine.”

That engine’s 1,200-strong U.S. team started 2017 with an Albert Einstein violin tribute to Lady Gaga and ended the year by reuniting a teddy bear with his missing nose via the United States Postal Service. Along the way, it easily brought in more new business than any other American agency—despite losing Office Depot—thanks to a combination of successful pitches and growing relationships with clients like Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, MGM Resorts International and Verizon. 

McCann is larger and more labyrinthine than your average network, with U.S. divisions including major offices in Minneapolis and Detroit, along with the CRM experts at MRM//McCann, the Bay Area’s tech-focused 215 McCann and several units dedicated to single brands, like M:United (Microsoft), Commonwealth//McCann (Chevrolet) and Fitzco//McCann (Coca-Cola).

According to global chief creative officer Rob Reilly, those disparate divisions have come together in serving each client’s need for creatively driven solutions to unstable markets. 

State Street Global Advisors ‘Fearless Girl’ She was the most-discussed piece of advertising in the last year if not the last decade. Some might say she was overanalyzed. But she persisted to score millions in free exposure with a paid media budget of zero dollars and win 18 Cannes Lions including four Grand Prix. Perhaps most importantly, SSGA challenged 476 companies to put more women in leadership roles as part of the campaign, and 76 actively worked to do so, according to the client.
Getty Images

No ‘house style’

In 2014, Diamond recruited Reilly, a CP+B veteran, to lead his team with a simple proposition.

“[Harris] said, ‘I want creativity to permeate everything we do, I want McCann to be the greatest creative network in the world, and I’ll give you anything you need to do it,’” Reilly recalls. “It’s a pretty tempting offer, and he’s held up his end of the bargain.” The strategic shift may be best exemplified by the network’s decision to change its official tagline from “Transforming brands and growing businesses” to “We help brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives.” 

“We’re talking about an organization right now where everybody’s job is creativity,” says McCann New York president Devika Bulchandani. Everyone has a specific role, but Bulchandani emphasizes that “breaking down those silos has been the critical part.” 

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.